Photonics and positioning help each other grow

AUBURN, MA--As any optical engineer knows, photonics and precise positioning go hand in hand.

AUBURN, MA--As any optical engineer knows, photonics and precise positioning go hand in hand. From optical data storage to fiber optics to biotechnology and other areas, the development and testing of better optical systems requires accurate positioning tools. And needs within the photonics industry drive the development of positioning technology. No one knows this more than Scott Jordan, director of nanoautomation technologies and business development at Physik Instrumente (PI). “Photonics and positioning are inseparable,” he says, adding, “Today’s seemingly impossible requests are tomorrow’s everyday requirements.”

Ten years ago, says Jordan, it was telecommunications that claimed the lion’s share of attention for motion-system vendors, resulting in commercial products such as PI’s six-axis submicron alignment microrobot that still enable applications in that and other fields. “Today, it is the life sciences that are posing some of the most intriguing challenges. For example, in single-molecule biophysical applications we are seeing innovative work that blurs the boundaries between atomic-force microscopy and optical tweezers (see King et al., “Ultrastable Atomic Force Microscopy: Atomic-Scale Stability and Registration in Ambient Conditions,” Nano Letters vol. 9, 4, 2009). “This sort of application depends on picometer-class real-world stabilities and controllability of position with very high responsiveness and is driving significant advancement in controls, interfacing, software, and mechanics. In fact, such requirements are rapidly eclipsing the ability of even the best metrology equipment to quantify the motion device’s performance.”

The semiconductor industry consistently drives motion-control advances, says Jordan. “I attended and presented at some fascinating industry symposia last year, and nanoimprint lithography seems like the wave of the future. This necessitates six-axis solutions that will build on what was developed a decade ago. As is uniformly seen throughout history (but too rarely acknowledged), such recombinant innovation will provide the answers to questions that have not even been posed yet.”

Applications as diverse as drug discovery and DNA sequencing are driving innovation in optical scanning and novel forms of microscopy, explains Jordan. “Many of these applications are highly dynamic, necessitating fast interfaces and sophisticated supporting software as well as speedy and stable mechanics. These applications existed a decade ago but have burst into prominence in recent years, driven by astonishing observations of molecular-level processes.”

Learning to trust new technology

While scientists and engineers are always looking for better hardware, they are cautious when it comes to the point of actually relying on it. So how does confidence in a new technology develop? “Certainly, word of mouth is important in such a tightly knit community as ours, and publications such as yours are instrumental in that,” notes Jordan. “Many products and technologies, such as the tiny ultrasonic positioner [that PI recently introduced], are developed in close cooperation with customers looking for a solution to something previously impossible. They spread into the more general market from there. That is, products may start out as application-specific solutions but make their way into our larger catalog, where they find new applications.

“We’re fortunate to be uniquely positioned to facilitate such cross-pollination. For example, that ultrasonic positioner was developed to meet the needs for fast, power-efficient positioning of small optics, but it’s attracting a lot of interest for high-density dispensing applications in biotech and materials processing. Along the way, we and our customers gain confidence the old fashioned way, by sweating the details and gaining experience and leveraging lessons from many directions. Pretty soon, the products evolve from ‘must-have’ enablers for a specific application to being an attractive, proven choice for other applications out of many catalog possibilities.”

Many other instances of this “cross-pollination” come to Jordan’s mind. “For example, there is a new class of super-fast field-programmable gate-array based interfacing based on LabVIEW that is currently enabling some especially challenging research and industrial applications, and the more other folks see the results, the more they realize they need it too,” he says. “That’s how it works: something done to satisfy a tough niche application becomes of broader interest.”

“Another example is some tracking technology we developed for a specific scanning application, but which is finding use in targeting implementations now. Or a patented subnanometer planarization capability for atomic-force microscopes that is enabling new forms of microlithography. Or an idea to help a good customer with legacy computer hardware that became the patented HyperBit solution to improve by more than a hundredfold the resolution of the PC-based digital-to-analog converters used in more than half our customers’ applications,” says Jordan. “The list is endless, but it all comes from close cooperation with the marketplace.”

--John Wallace

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